For years, Marina Ilarraza’s family lived in a government-subsidized apartment in Hartford’s North End where mold adorned the shower, the windows wouldn’t shut, the heat worked sporadically and the water ran brown.
In the basement, a sewage backup left behind fleas and rotting cats. Drug violence in the neighborhood often prevented her children from playing outside.
She wanted out but had few options – until 2019, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ended the last of its contracts with the landlords of the Ilarrazas’ apartment and two others in the city because of the deplorable conditions inside.
Ilarraza had hoped that the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher that HUD gave her would help her find a better place, but she and others who had lived in the three apartments soon found that they had very few options. Some – including Ilarraza – wound up stuck in Hartford, in apartments that some said were even worse.
The system, for them, is a trap. Now, the policies that keep poor residents in impoverished areas with little opportunity are the subject of a class action lawsuit that 10 local families filed on Wednesday against HUD and various housing authorities. The lawsuit has the potential to broadly affect how affordable housing is offered across the country.
Peter Haberlandt, senior counsel with Open Communities Alliance, said the barriers that the 250 families in the Hartford North End faced when trying to relocate are systematic, and the goal of the lawsuit is to force HUD and the housing authorities they work with to change their tactics that are further segregating communities.
“We do have a sense that this is coming again … There are other places like this,” he said during a press conference Wednesday in front of a gate that surrounds the now-closed, run-down property where Ilarraza’s family used to live. “Really, the goal of this is, let’s work on it now, let’s come up with a way — and there are ways that have been done successfully in the past — to not have this happen again.”
Those years in the Barbour Gardens apartments were rough for Ilarraza’s family. Her then-5-year-old son Jaimee had asthma, and research has shown that breathing in mold can trigger attacks and other adverse effects. Hives came and went on the skin of all the children, a result of bathing in unsanitary water, or the mold, or mice biting them while they slept, their mom believes.
Just as her neighborhood was segregated, so too, is the school where only a handful of white students attend and the overwhelming majority come from families living in poverty. The second lowest-performing school in the state, less than 5% of the students read or do math at grade level – and three-quarters are multiple grades behind.
Ilarraza, who is of Caribbean descent, tried for years to leave and find a healthier home in a neighborhood where the schools are better, but she couldn’t find a place within her budget. She was on a waiting list for a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher for four years, hoping to find another place to live – “anywhere but Hartford.”
Facing mounting pressure from Ilarraza and others living in the Barbour Gardens, Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments, and Infill I apartments – three of the apartment complexes that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has contracted with to house extremely low-income residents – the agency ended its contracts with their landlords in the last few years and gave her the voucher she had long sought so she could move elsewhere.
“Why not try? We’ll see if I can find a place,” the somewhat skeptical mom said at the time.
She would spend the next five months searching for a path to a better home and school for her family in Bloomfield and West Hartford – before resigning herself to being trapped in such living conditions. She rented another run-down apartment in a nearby neighborhood in Hartford that has an even higher share of families living in poverty.
Having lived there a few months now, she says it is worse than the apartment she left.
She’s not alone.
Most want out
Supported by civil rights attorneys and organizations from Connecticut and across the United States, Ilarraza and nine other Black or Hispanic families who lived in the three apartment complexes on Wednesday filed the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the housing authorities they believe should have helped them find a path out of these segregated neighborhoods and “abhorrent,” “decrepit” and “inhumane” housing conditions. Instead, they allege, these government agencies perpetuate segregation with a long list of policies that trap them and violate the federal Fair Housing Act in the process.
This lawsuit, centered on the relocation of the 250 families in these three complexes, could have far-reaching consequences, since it challenges numerous state and federal policies that, they say, perpetuate segregation.
Officials from HUD declined to comment on the lawsuit on Wednesday.
One of the residents named in the lawsuit, Ashley Matos, said residents initially perceived getting the Choice Vouchers as the path to a new life.
“This is a life changing moment for all of us, or at least we thought,” said Matos, who dealt with dangerous electrical issues and mice in her old apartment. A few months before receiving her voucher, she had jumped on top of her children who were playing outside to serve as a human shield when someone started shooting across the street.
“I dreamed of moving out of Hartford along with my kids into a clean apartment where my infant could crawl all over the floor and we wouldn’t have to worry about mold and [electrical] circuits turning up on fire. But that just turned into a dream. … We all have a right to better housing and to choose a neighborhood that we would like to live in with our families. These rights were taken from not only me but from the tenants at the rest of these properties.”
Three-quarters of the families from those three apartment complexes that were surveyed by the Center for Leadership and Justice said they wanted to move out of Hartford. Others wanted to stay because it’s where their schools, churches and families are.
“I wanted to stay in the North End. I wanted to stay with my community,” said Milagros Ortiz, a single mom with three children who moved out of Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments to another Hartford apartment last winter.
But for those like Ilarraza who are eager to leave, few ended up finding a path to leave, and most moved into apartments with similar living conditions; bed bugs, rats rustling around and drug deals happening right outside. The neighborhoods the vast majority of these families moved to had three times the share of families living in poverty than throughout the Hartford region – 31% vs. 10% – and 2.5 times the share of people of color – 83% vs. 32%.
Cori Mackey, the leader of the Center for the Leadership and Justice and the lead plaintiff in the case, said the trauma families face in these communities continue.
“After years of living in squalor, unable to move without losing their subsidies, residents had the promise of a new start. That new start, however, ended up being the continuation of a nightmare,” she said.
The civil rights attorneys who brought this case – from Open Communities Alliance, Yale’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services clinic, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – didn’t need a crystal ball to know these 250 Hartford families would have a narrow path to moving to a healthier living situation.
“The families predictably moved to racially concentrated areas,” they write in the lawsuit – because of state and federal policies that essentially guaranteed this outcome.
The federal government continues to make affordable housing available in apartments that are overwhelmingly located in high-poverty and segregated neighborhoods. An investigation by the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica last year found that this is the result of HUD and state officials sitting on the sidelines while many neighboring communities refuse to allow for the construction of reasonably priced apartments or duplexes that voucher holders could afford or because landlords are just outright refusing to accept vouchers as a form of payment, despite state law forbidding such discrimination.
In the Clay Arsenal neighborhood where Ilarraza lived, nearly half of the housing units are reserved for low-income residents.
“HUD’s policy of placing subsidized housing in racially concentrated areas should be declared unlawful,” the lawsuit reads. “The current state of Hartford is proof that HUD and local housing authorities have failed their duty to counteract segregation.”
The tenants who filed this lawsuit say that they should have received assistance to overcome the discrimination and deficit of available housing they faced when they went looking for a place.
Ilarraza, who ended up moving into the Best Western hotel when her living conditions deteriorated while she searched for a new apartment earlier this year, said she was turned down for countless apartments. They kept the application fees they required her to pay, though.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development did pay a private contractor, Leumas Residential, to help the 250 families moving from the three apartments. Luemas was supposed to provide money for security deposits and moving expenses, but, according to the lawsuit, tenants say Leumas did nothing to seek out landlords to accept their vouchers outside of Hartford or overcome other barriers. Instead, they provided these families with listings primarily in Hartford, and distributed HUD’s list of landlords in high-poverty neighborhoods who have a history of renting to voucher holders.
“They were good for nothing,” said Ilarraza of Leumas.
Records obtained by The Connecticut Mirror show Leumas Residential LLC was awarded $638,727 contract to relocate the 75 families at her former apartment complex, Barbour Gardens. Another $541,245 was awarded to Leumas to relocate the 52 families at the nearby Infil I Apartments, and $2,420,742 to relocate the 150 families at Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments.
It’s unclear how much of these $3.6 million in awards went towards security deposits and other moving expenses for the tenants and how much went to Leumas.
The lawsuit calls for HUD to get permission from the court before it designates any additional subsidized housing in the region. With 11 other properties that HUD contracts with in Connecticut having received failing grades for health and safety, the attorneys are demanding that all tenants who are relocated be provided robust housing counseling to support their move and that their vouchers can be used outside the cities.
Why it matters
Where children grow up plays a huge role in whether they will flourish as adults.
In Connecticut, the cost to live near the high-scoring elementary schools in Hartford is 3.5 times more than near the struggling schools, Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, reported.
“Would-be movers would have to spend about $25,000 more per year on housing to make that jump,” Brookings found.
Data published by researchers at Brown and Harvard in collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau shows just how wide the outcomes are, depending on where you grow up.
For example, one-in-10 children that were born in Llarraza’s nighborhood between 1978 and 1983 were incarcerated on April 1, 2010 compared to less than 1% of children raised two miles down the road in West Hartford. The kids who were born in the Hartford neighborhood made $19,000 a year in their mid-30s compared to $41,000 next door.